"Poirot does not like things he cannot explain."
A delight...but of course you already knew that. Acorn Media has remastered and repackaged three episodes from ITV1's long, long-running Agatha Christie's Poirot for Agatha Christie's Poirot: Series 4, starring the inimitable David Suchet as Christie's infuriatingly correct sleuth, Hercule Poirot. The featured episodes here, which encompass the series' fourth season (originally airing in the U.K. in January, 1992), are The ABC Murders, Death in the Clouds, and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. Even the great Poirot might be stymied by the seemingly myriad number of re-packages these Poirots have been put through over the years; however, according to Acorn Media, these transfers are "newly remastered," so double-dipping is at the buyer's discretion (unfortunately, I don't have the older sets to compare the A/V). New-comers/completists, though, who, like Poirot, are obsessed with tidiness, will appreciate Acorn starting over again at the beginning, putting these little gems out in original U.K. air date order―a cool "extra" I like a lot. No other bonuses for these good-looking transfers.
As I wrote in my previous Agatha Christie's Poirot reviews, I'm usually at a loss to decipher Christie's mysteries―as much out of a willingness to be swept along with the story as...well, let's just leave it at that. I've never read a Christie and solved the crime right out of the gate, and even when I've guessed correctly the identity of the murderer in these televised films, it's never because of the damming evidence that Poirot so painstakingly uncovers and intricately explains―it was just a lucky guess, plain and simple. I know quite a few readers and viewers like to "match wits" with these fictional detectives; solving the puzzles are as much a mental exercise as the stories are sources of entertainment to them. And to those intrepid and logical souls, I tip my hat. For me, at least, the Suchet Poirots provide a seemingly unending supply of humorous moments―interspersed between the killings―that can be as delightful as any out-and-out comedy. In that beautifully designed credit sequence that fans of the series like the best, there are constantly shifting, overlapping panels depicting Poirot's face, like facets in a turning diamond. And at one moment, as Suchet stares confidently and impudently into the camera, it appears that his eyebrow arches, as his eyes twinkle with delight. Whether that "arch" is actually Suchet's or an effect of the distorting facet panels is beside the point (a point the fastidious Poirot would enjoy ruminating over)―it's a moment that perfectly captures the character.
There is genuine delight in Suchet's take on Poirot: delight in Poirot's intellect, his obsessive fussiness, his stinging ripostes, his singular "otherness," even his aloneness. It's such a confident portrayal (one I would imagine Suchet felt was necessary to capture the character's absolute assuredness) that when the humor comes through, it's almost a relief from the relentlessness of the character.Later episodes in the Agatha Christie's Poirot series would jettison that marvelously evocative title sequence, opting for an increasingly more pensive, mournful overall tone for the series (a correct choice, considering how Christie evolved the character in her novels and short stories). Suchet's invariably correct, invariably obsessive, invariably hilarious detective, would become more isolated, more lonely, with the stories leaving behind cohorts Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings as Poirot darkened at the prospect of a seemingly endless supply of liars and killers populating his narrowing world. The three episodes in Agatha Christie's Poirot: Series 4, however, are much "happier" affairs―if one can put into context the terrible truths about greed and envy and rage that Christie was so adept at revealing―with the triumvirate of Poirot, Japp and Hastings creating a comfortable, always amusing crime-solving team that I would guess fans of the series remember most fondly (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, however, points toward the more moody direction the series would soon take).
That cozy feeling, of course, comes from our own desire to view these outings with a sense of continuity and anticipation (talk to anyone who watches the series and see how loyal they are to it), magnified now decades later with a sense of nostalgia for the series' enduring nature. When one realizes that Suchet is very close to fulfilling his dream of having portrayed Poirot in adaptations of all but one of Christie's stories, that gives the viewer an added layer of context and stability that readers of Christie over the decades felt, as well, when she publishing. That snug, comfy aura we sometimes get re-watching these Poirots over the decades, though, can sometimes overshadow Christie's bleak view of human nature. I've never quite understood Christie's detractors who mislabel her works as "safe" or "quaint" or "reassuring." Perhaps it's what we would now call in these modern times Christie's "period detail," or her sometimes ritualistic use of the more recognizable frameworks of the English village mystery (frameworks made stereotypical because she largely perfected them) that leads people to view Christie's stories as appealing picturesque and comfortably old-fashioned.
However, I've always found her world rather terrifying in the endlessly recycling violence that fills the backgrounds of her seemingly "normal" environments. Christie's world is a terribly depressing, bleak place, peopled by cheaters, liars, and killers: a cold, venal, base world that Christie relentlessly uncovers with an unblinking eye. And who "saves" us, the reader (or viewer), from this desolate mess, or at least makes sense out of the murderous mayhem? Her two most famous creations: two outsiders―a lonely, insignificant spinster, Miss Jane Marple, and a bizarre-acting "foreigner"―both of whom, although sure in a higher moral order such as "justice," live out their lives separate and alone. What's "comfy" about that? Poirot's little obsessions with his dress, his food, and his excessive correctness and politeness, quirky little ticks that always provide solid laughs for readers and viewers, can also be seen as rigid, last-ditch efforts by the detective to hang onto some kind of personal order, while the rest of the world spins out of control. It's that formalized eccentricity, coupled with Poirot's perhaps too-deep appreciation for the perversity of human nature, that makes him such a simultaneously humorous and sympathetic character, one that Suchet delineates in finer and finer detail with each TV outing.
As for the mysteries included in Agatha Christie's Poirot: Series 4...they're just as good as we've come to expect from the series. The ABC Murders, adapted by Clive Exton and directed with some snap by Andrew Grieve, may not seem as densely opaque as it might have been when first published in 1936 (through repetition over the decades, the dodge involving Alexander Bonaparte Cust is fairly accessible...even if we can't work out exactly why until Christie's denouement). However, Grieve and Exton expertly weave humor and puzzling mayhem into a satisfying whole. It's fun to see Poirot so delighted at the return of his best friend Hastings from South America...and equally funny (and rather poignant) to see his best efforts to put up with Hastings' surprise gift: a stuffed, smelly croc (watch Suchet distastefully sniffy his finger after touching it). Lots of funny bits in this one (I laughed out loud at Suchet repeatedly handing Fraser the same saucer to rewash countless times), and some typically amusing Poirot lines ("Who are you? You don't belong to the police!" an angry suspect sneers, to which Poirot responds, "No, sir...I am better than the police,"), keep The ABC Murders humming along. Production values are careful and impeccable (I love the 30s montage bridges, too), and it's great to see Fraser and Jackson together with Suchet. A solid entry. Death in the Clouds, adapted by William Humble and directed by Stephen Whittaker, has one of Christie's more baffling mysteries―how does one die from a poisonous blow gun dart on a cramped airplane, with no one observing the murderous act...and with the world-famous detective Hercule Poirot sitting a mere two feet away from the crime―executed with a steady, metronomic pulse. Suchet is excellent interacting with Sarah Woodward during the Parisian scenes, pulling off an exceedingly charming, excessively courtly (but not phony) politeness that, had Poirot been a different man, would have swept the girl right off her feet (Suchet is so good at walking that lonely, fine line of Poirot's when it comes to pretty young women). Philip Jackson as Japp gets a lot more screen time here, and he's quite amusing in his gruff, uncouth portrayal of the Scotland Yard inspector. The solution to the mystery is ingeniously blocked out in a flashback, making it all seem so simple...if only you had the smarts of Poirot to figure it out, that is. And finally, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe seems to want to stay away from politics in what many consider to be one of Christie's most overtly political mysteries (were the producers worried audiences wouldn't care about discussions of British fascism and communism?), somewhat robbing the crime's solution of its power (Poirot's defense of the individual's right not to have his or her life taken away for "bigger" reasons had more impact within Christie's politically-charged background). Instead, we're treated to a rather violent outing, complete with gunshots to the head and rotting corpses with their faces bashed in, with a darker, more somber Poirot not exactly joking around with an equally preoccupied Inspector Japp. Clive Exton again adapts, while director Ross Devenish manages some creepily effective slo-mo montages and flashbacks that set the dour mood for this grim little mystery. And kudos to Devenish and actresses Joanna Phillips-Lane and Carolyn Colquhoun for creating so deceptive a visual ruse (I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you).
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.